Maurren Higa Maggi, Golden Girl

22 08 2008

This morning, Maurren Higa Maggi became the first Brazilian female athlete in track and field to win an Olympic medal, in great and dramatic fashion: gold in the long jump with a mark of 7.04 m, just 1 cm above the second place, the 2004 champion Tatyana Lebedeva from Russia. Here’s what made the whole difference:

Guess which one is Maurren’s foot 🙂

A short video about her career is here.

The video with the medal ceremony was in YouTube for a couple of hours, but it’s gone now.

There’s one advantage in being from a country with very few gold medals: when you do get one, it’s so special that’s hard to describe 🙂 .

You can google her name and find all about her in the news, so I just want to highlight the facts that made this my favourite story in this fantastic edition of the games.

  • Maurren was born in Sao Carlos, a city where my sister lived for many years, so she makes the Olympic dream something much closer to my reality than Phelps, Kobe Bryant or Usain Bolt.
  • She’s a dedicated mother and mentions her daughter Sophia in every interview: she apparently positions herself as mother first, athlete second.
  • She went to sports hell twice and came back: favourite in Sydney 2000, she got injured during the qualification round and had to quit the competition. In 2003, she tested positive for the steroid clostebol, and was sanctioned with a 2-year suspension. She claimed a doctor had applied a healing cream containing the substance to a cut she received during a hair removal process, and was cleared at the national level but not by the IAAF.
  • She was so upset with the occurred that she shut down, and could not even hear about training again. Her father said that in one occasion she stormed out of the house and drove her car away just because somebody suggested she could go back to training.
  • At that time, she lived the glitz of another sports: she married then Brazilian Formula One driver Antonio Pizzonia – father of Sophia – and went to live in Monaco. It’s interesting to notice that her Wikipedia entry mentions Pizzonia, but Pizzonia’s entry ignores her, even though she’s been arguably much more successful than him. They are not together anymore.
  • Asked if, at 32, age would be an issue to win the medal, she reportedly said: “I’m not afraid of that. Heike Drechsler won the Olympic title at the age of 35, so everything is possible,” she said.”
  • Contrary to many Brazilian athletes competing in Beijing, Maurren has a Brazilian coach, Nelson Moura, who’s also the coach of Panama’s Irving Saladino, who won the men’s long jump competition Tuesday to claim his country’s first-ever Olympic gold. The two athletes live and train in Sao Paulo.
  • I’m not sure about her heritage, but I would guess by her last names that she’s got some Japanese and Italian background. It was funny to hear in the Canadian broadcast people calling her “Maggie”.
  • Sophia told Maurren after the win: “I wanted the silver medal, mom!”

The Olympics and Power Law Distributions

22 08 2008

I find amusing all the discussion around ranking countries in the Olympics Medal Standings based on the overall total or the number of golds. This may be relevant for China or the US, as holding the top position is a strong statement in world sports dominance. In the case of Brazil and Canada, as of this writing, it may mean a jump from #26 to #16 and from #17 to #13, respectively, on the stands, which may look like a big deal, but in a cold analysis, you’re just seeing a Power Law distribution effect, the math pattern behind the long tail.

When you are in the long tail, you’re merely comparing peanuts. One extra gold medal may make you go up several positions, but a jump from 40th place to 20th does not mean that you improved 100%. Using the gold-medal-first rank, Brazil was #52 in Sydney (2000) and #16 in Athens (2004) and Canada #21 and #24. The variation there does not mean that those countries became much better or worse in a 4-year span. It just means that they both are in that majority where sports excellence is the exception, not the rule. Nothing to be ashamed of.

Our brains are used to normal distributions and linear relationships and we tend to interpret logarithmic relationships in a linear way. I remember a speaker making a joke about a supposedly dumb statement by a US presidential candidate around the lines of “silly person was astonished to learn that half of the US population was below average in performance criteria X”. The underlying assumption was that “average” always marks the middle point of a distribution. Of course, that only occurs in perfectly normal distributions, with mirrored tails on both ends.

Inspired by Clay Shirky in his excellent book “Here comes everybody”, I plotted the medal stands and got the following curve:

The speaker above was probably thinking about median, not average. Start paying attention to published stats around you, and you will notice how often numbers are over-extended, converting subtle differences in absolute rankings. I think I mentioned this in a previous post: numbers don’t lie, but they can easily mislead.